Hey, Wanna Buy a Minicar?

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General Motors would like you to like them. No, really.

That’s why, at the New York International Auto Show yesterday, they revealed three new concept minicars aimed at the urban market. Called the Groove, the Beat and the Trax, they’re new skins for the same basic guts found in a Chevy Spark or Daewoo Matiz — cars that are already popular, not to mention profitable for GM, in countries around the world.

But to bring something like this to North America, the Detroit behemoth wants to feel what one company executive described as "pull" from US consumers. So they rolled out the amped-up designs (created in GM’s Korea design studio) here in New York, rather than at auto shows in Shanghai or Geneva.

And then, in their GM way, they did their best to sex things up. They reached out to the Internet community, inviting rumpled bloggers (including this one) to shmooze with top executives at a fancy dinner Tuesday night at Metrazur in Grand Central Station.

"Small cars can be cool, small cars can be bold," said Ed Welburn, VP for GM Global Design, insisted as he introduced the cars at the Javits Center. "Small cars can fit urban lifestyles while providing fuel economy." And then the show began.

Dancers bumped and shimmied to a melange of "modern" music (like Elwood’s hip-hop-flavored take on Gordon Lightfoot’s "Sundown"). The lights flashed and the shrouds were pulled off the cars. An announcer intoned slogans about how one model embodied the "adventurous spirit of modern grunge" while another was for "people with a lifestyle embedded in the X Games."

DSCN1418.JPGGM even went the Coors twins one better and found blonde triplets to point at the cars and stand around politely chatting with eager older male auto journalists once the "reveal" was complete.

And they’ve got an American Idol-style voting stunt going on that invites consumers to visit vote4chevrolet.com and click on which of the three models they like the best.

As executive designer David Lyon sheepishly admitted, getting GM to be "cool" is "really hard. It’s like asking the Army to be cool."

It’s easy to poke fun at those attempts, but making minicars desirable on a mass level in the US is also deadly serious business — both for General Motors as a company and for the environment. GM is the biggest producer of automobiles in the world. Globally, it sells mostly cars. But in the US, it’s most successful with its pickups and other trucks. The reveal of the minicar concepts was more an effort to test the waters than to begin an aggressive marketing campaign. All of the GM officials I talked to expressed skepticism that Americans would ever embrace minicars the way Europeans and Asians have — unless the price of gasoline went well north of $3 a gallon.

But all the same executives also acknowledged that GM has to change its own thinking if it’s going to remain a player in a marketplace where environmental concerns are no mere fashion trend — they’re fast becoming a regulatory imperative. The task isn’t likely to be easy if their vice chairman Bob Lutz’s attitude is any indication. "We’re committed to reducing greenhouse gases," said Troy Clarke, president of GM North America, in a response to a blogger’s question about the company’s position on global warming. Clarke’s corporate communications handler looked on nervously as he continued. "We want to be about creating solutions. We’re trying."

GM’s efforts include a number of flex fuel vehicles designed to run on ethanol blends; a hydrogen cell-powered vehicle that is supposed to be available by the end of the decade; and the Chevrolet Volt, a sleek electric concept car that represents GM’s chance to shake its rep as the company that killed the electric car. Problem is, as nice as the Volt looks, the battery is still in development, and there’s no firm date for its release to the public.

What was most surprising to me about the GM executives I had a chance to talk to was their avowed skepticism about their ability to successfully market minicars — to create or even foster a demand.

"The question is, does North America want a car this size?" said Clarke, who admitted to having been forced to see An Inconvenient Truth by his college-age daughter, although he didn’t say what he thought of it. "I want to see it in driveways and on the streets. But I would want the confidence that we would introduce it and that it would stay introduced."

Other executives repeatedly stressed the idea that it is consumers who create demand, and that the company’s marketing is powerless in the face of consumer tastes.

It’s a hard argument to buy from a company as powerful as GM — especially at the auto show, where booming promotions for Hummers blast from video screens and Cadillacs are polished and repolished to give them an enticing gleam. As designer David Lyon said, "It’s more an internal GM thing than an external one. [Bringing minicars to] North America would be a contrarian move. "But the public won’t decide for us."

Photos: Sarah Goodyear 

  • You covered it, so clearly the VIP-gee whiz treatment works!

  • But we told Sarah to bring her own supper in a brown paper bag so she remains un-bought.

  • I think those cars actually look amazing and as a city dweller I would absolutely consider getting one. As long as I can throw some gear in it and a bike on top I’m game! To me in the city it’s all about compact maneuverability and the mini’s have that for sure. For the right price I’d be all over one of those even though I basically detest GM as a company.

  • random

    Indeed. Let’s keep in mind that … this is _New York City_ … where mini cars are still wildly out of place. Your coverage, with its tacit assumption that mini cars are a good idea, is much more relevant to cities like Dallas and L.A. or the vast suburbs. New York City is a city apart from the rest.

  • Thanks for the coverage – there’s no rational person who can say, “All Americans should just not have a car.”

    Towards the end of Sarah’s reporting, I hear the same echos as in “Who Killed the Electric Car?” With waiting lists of thousands of people, after producing only hundreds of cars, GM says “but we’ve only sold hundreds – see, it’s not being embraced; there’s insufficient demand.”

    Is Detroit driving us down the same dead-end? Saying “we tried” and then pushing Hummers and Caddies with slogans like, “you won’t even feel it when you run over the kid who’s walking home from day care!”

  • Boogiedown

    Hey Random, fail to see how mini cars are NOT relevant in NYC…would you mind explaining? I had a Mini Cooper when they first came out, and guess what? It was too big!

  • kent beuchert

    The Chevy VOLT has cemented GM as the leader in a technology that, unlike the overpriced and
    underacheiving Toyota and Honda hybrids, will ACTUALLY make a significant difference in
    foreign oil dependence. Those who make claims about carbon reduction results WILL be disappointed liars. Again. Well, they probably swallowed the 1001 lies contained in the most fictitious “documentary” ever put on film (“Who (should be ‘What’) Killed the Electric car?” – hint :it rhymes with battery).

  • VDH

    What’s so surprising about anyone saying that the mass public in the US is resistant to buying small cars?

    Every major car manufacturer has a full range of vehicles when it comes to size and yet which vehicles sell the most by a huge margin? Pickups followed by large midsize cars (Accord, Camry, Altima) that do not sell well in Europe at all due to their size and thirst.

    When the Golf/Rabbit sells around 500,000 units a year in Europe but only manages 28,000 units a year in the US then there must be more to selling small cars than simply providing them in the first place.

    Face it, Americans love their big cars and trucks and only legislation and taxation will change buying habits. You can’t blame the car companies for providing what the public wants.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    God forbid that the car company executives should be guided by any consideration beyond the bottom line!

    Minicars definitely are less deadly, less polluting and less wasteful of oil and space (how many of them can fit in the parking space of a Hummer?). But is the decrease in destructiveness, pollution and waste significant enough to be worth any effort on the part of environmentalists, or should we be concentrating our efforts on transit and human-powered transportation? I don’t know the answer; what do you all think?

  • Bob Laipply

    Please read this article in the Detroit news. We need these cars here in the U.S. It does not look like G.M will sell them here.
    http://detnews.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20070404/AUTO04/704040451/1364
    From article “In an interview with reporters after revealing the three concept cars, GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz said it currently was unlikely that GM will build any of the triplet concepts for sale in the United States, unless there was a dramatic prolonged increase in fuel prices or an “unforeseen” change in fashion for small cars here. He also said the vehicles could be priced starting at $10,000 and could be built in either China or India. All of the triplets would get in the high 40 or 50 mile per gallon fuel economy range.
    Lutz noted that the vehicles aren’t currently being designed to meet rigorous U.S. safety requirements, another sign the company isn’t likely to bring any of the three vehicles designed at GM’s South Korean design studio to the U.S. market.”
    For G.M. to change its image these are exactly the cars they need to sell in the U.S. Please help publicize this.
    You can also vote here:
    http://info.detnews.com/autostalk/lettersindex.cfm?topic=Mini_Chevys&forum=autostalk

  • Sarah Goodyear

    That’s an interesting comment from Lutz about the safety standards. Designer David Lyon told me specifically that the concept cars were compatible with US specs.

  • Bob Laipply

    Thank you Sarah. I would hope that someone close to Bob Lutz could pin him down on his comments. It’s very disconcerting to read that the “car guy” at G.M. is downplaying the potential for these cars in the U.S. market. I think Toyota and Honda were very concerned to see these fresh forward looking designs come from G.M.

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